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24 February 2020updated 29 Jun 2021 2:32pm

Why is the Labour leadership race taking so long?

The answer is actually pretty surprising.

By Stephen Bush

Why is the Labour leadership election taking so long? That’s the question that, more than any other, has come to dominate my inbox – and indeed Westminster – over recent weeks. It’s an odd one, because it has a counter-intuitive answer: the Labour leadership election isn’t taking that long at all.

In replacing Jeremy Corbyn, Labour will take just three more days between the nomination of candidates and the election of Corbyn’s successor than the Liberal Democrats did to elect Jo Swinson – and just 15 days more than the Conservatives took to elect Boris Johnson.

Of course Labour’s nomination process means that its pre-ballot stage is a lot longer than its Conservative or Liberal Democrat equivalents. Tory MPs were, for obvious logistical reasons, able to winnow their field of candidates down to just two in a matter of days. For equally obvious logistical reasons, that Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated groups are also involved in the nominating process means that it takes longer – you don’t need to find around 600 public spaces for Conservative MPs to cast their leadership ballots, but you do need to find 600 appropriate venues for Constituency Labour Parties to decide who to nominate.

Labour’s current nomination rules mean that the contest will always be about this long – you could shave perhaps ten days off the opening of the ballot itself, but that’s about it. Yet even if you add the extra days created by that process – even if you go further and conclude that the Labour leadership race actually started at 10pm on election night – the contest is only 114 days, which is still only about the same length of time as the 2016 contest to replace David Cameron would have taken.

And, of course, if you decide to count the whole period from 13 December 2019 to 4 April 2020 as “the Labour leadership election of 2020”, then that also significantly extends the length of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative leadership elections. This is a long-winded way of saying: despite how it feels and has been reported, the Labour leadership election has not gone on particularly long. But clearly it feels longer – many more Labour MPs, activists and general passers-by have complained to me about its length than any other contest I have covered. (Full disclosure: I was pretty taken aback when I ran the numbers and realised that this contest is not particularly long, compared to recent history.)

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I have a couple of theories. The first is that while the Labour leadership election is not all that long, it is certainly the longest contest in which one candidate is perceived to be miles ahead of the field. The reality is that Corbyn was ahead in the 2015 Labour leadership race almost from the moment he made the ballot, but this was largely ignored and dismissed by a lot of people. That, and his unique candidacy, made the contest seem more exciting than it actually was.

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Keir Starmer’s candidacy is not unique – he is a thoroughly competent politician from the middle of the Labour Party – and he is perceived to both be well ahead and to have been so from the get-go.

The second theory is that while this is not the first time that British political campaigns have indulged in multiple election launches, this is the first time that the media has indulged those campaigns. All of the remaining candidates have “launched” their campaign at least six times, and they’ve received fairly extensive coverage each and every time.

For whatever reason, we didn’t treat the period after Theresa May formally put a date on her resignation, when various would-be candidates started offering their thoughts on various British political issues, with anything like the same level of interest. Nor did anyone cover the early stages of the 2015 Labour leadership, or the 2007 one – when the winner was literally going to be prime minister – in similar depth. No wonder everyone is bored.

I suspect this is in large part because that stage of the contest didn’t matter at all to anyone but MPs, but because Labour members in the country now have a veto at the beginning of the contest, the contest becomes a national affair earlier on.

So the answer to “why is the Labour leadership election taking so long?” is that it isn’t really – it’s just that the coverage started earlier in the process.